Anyone who knows me well knows that Serge Gainsbourg is my absolute hero. I love his music but it’s not just that for me – I also love his writing, his films, his acting, his photographs; everything. As his music is often written about but his career as an actor and director is largely overlooked I have decided to concentrate (for now) primarily on his films.
First up is Georges Lautner’s film Le pacha (1968) in which Serge appeared briefly in person playing himself and also appeared more extensively on the soundtrack; if you want to hear Requiem pour un con on a loop, get yourself a copy of this film – it’s worth it just to hear this repetitive music which was so fabulously ahead of its time.
As a bit of background, in 1966 Serge Gainsbourg made an appearance in Jean-Paul Le Chanois’ Le jardinier d’Argenteuil alongside Jean Gabin, who was starring and co-producing. “As far as Gabin was concerned, the booze ups we were able to have together was unbelievable! He warmed to me immediately. During filming we laughed ourselves silly… As he was co-producer on the film, he asked me to do the music. He invited me to his place, near Bois in Neuilly. “Let’s go up to my daughter’s room,” he said to me, “there’s a piano.” I play him a few snatches and he says to me: “Well, sonny, I find that absolutely charming!”
I’ve not got or seen Le jardinier d’Argenteuil yet but I have got Le pacha which they collaborated on again one year later. “I made an appearance in Le pacha, as Gainsbourg, in a recording studio; I sing Requiem[…] whilst Gabin passes in front of me and we exchange a long look of total incomprehension.” Yes, that about sums it up!
There is a slight problem with Le pacha if you’re English though; it doesn’t seem to be available with subtitles. Now, although I just translated the texts above, my French is not brilliant – I get by and I try my best – and I do experience problems when trying to understand people like Gabin who has a low vocal register, appears to mumble, and in this film uses a lot of slang. The perfect solution for me was the French subtitles for the hard of hearing, which meant I could get more out of the film than if it had been totally without titles. Hopefully one day it’ll appear with English subs but until then I’ll have to make do.
The film is available on Gaumont DVD and if you’re lucky you’ll find the two disc edition, which has loads of extras worth a look including commentaries, making-of documentaries, photo and poster galleries, and the entire supporting programme that was shown before the film during screenings in 1968.
If you watch the film expecting to see a lot of Serge you’d be disappointed, but there are other reasons to watch it – and not just for the soundtrack either. For one there is the lovely Dany Carrel (who I know chiefly from her appearances in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Enfer and La prisonnière):
Secondly, there are some incredibly stylish sequences and cinematography, which somehow manage not to look out of place in what is essentially a very gritty crime film:
Even the criminals’ hideout has great imagery:
Yet another nod to Gainsbourg and Bardot’s Harley Davidson
And Joss has a pretty stylish office for a police commissionner as well
And there’s the story itself – whilst it’s never going to be considered a “quality” film, it’s got mystery, it’s got several explosions and loads of shootings going on; if you like that kind of thing, then you’ll love Le pacha.
Here’s my summary of the film, *SPOILER WARNING*:
The film starts with the funeral of Inspector Albert Gouvion (Robert Dalban), who was found dead in his apartment. It is initially suspected that he had committed suicide after a police case he worked on went terribly wrong, but this appears not to be the case. His friend and colleague, Commissioner Joss (Gabin), is carrying out investigations to find out what happened to his friend, who he affectionately refers to as a “con” (an idiot, but actually a bit stronger than that maybe even the c word, but if we want to be more polite then possibly asshole).
Whilst Gouvion may have been a war hero and a (seemingly) respected police officer, it seems that he had a few secrets that even his friend Joss did not know about. His story begins when he is sent out on a job involving the transport of several cases of priceless and irreplaceable jewels from Boucheron, which are being sent over to Amsterdam. While transporting the jewels towards the Belgian border, the fleet of vehicles comes under attack from a gang of criminals led by a character called Marcel Lurat, nicknamed Quinquin (André Pousse). The gang crash a car into the police motorbikes, killing two policemen; shoot at the undercover police car with a bazooka; make the car and the lorry containing the jewels crash; they pull the lorry containing the jewels into the back of their own lorry and drive off leaving the wreckage behind them.
A controlled explosion of the lorry enables them to retrieve the cases of jewels, which they exchange for a case of money from a smartly dressed man called Brunet (Maurice Garrel). The police are aware of only a few criminals in a position to handle such hot goods; Brunet is on their radar.
Back at the police station, Joss questions Gouvion (who survived the crash) as to what happened; Joss’ manner is very brusque, even with someone he calls a friend, and he gives the impression that he blames Gouvion for the incident and that he thought he wasn’t up to the job. Gouvion leaves the station upset and is next seen dead on his apartment floor from a bullet wound, with a gun in his hand. Joss does not feel any responsibility for this at all: “You don’t commit suicide after a slanging match!” He refuses to believe that it’s a case of suicide.
Joss starts investigating with his colleague Marc (Jean Gaven).
Meanwhile, Quinquin is regrouping with his fellow gang members to share out the loot – or is he? He goes to see two members who are hiding out, as they look at the suitcase of cash Quinquin sneaks up and shoots them both. Not content with offing two of his gang members, he heads off to meet another one who is at home watching TV with his wife; Quinquin shoots them both.
He next heads off to meet Léon de Lyon (Henri Déus), who is waiting in his car in the woods.
In a nod towards Serge Gainsbourg, Léon listens to Bardot singing Harley Davidson on the radio in his car. Quinquin approaches with a suitcase of cash and hands it over to Léon through his car window. For a moment it looks like he is going to share the loot with Léon, but Quinquin’s not that kind; he gets his gun and shoots the unsuspecting Léon through his car door. As Quinquin shoots, Bardot sings: “Et si je meurs demain, c’est que tel etait mon destin…” – it means something like: And if I die tomorrow, it’s because this was my destiny. Cheeky!
Quinquin pauses only to take the case of cash back and to push Léon’s car into the pond and watch it sink; then he’s off again. Que m’importe de mourir, les cheveux dans le vent!
It’s after the death of Léon that Gouvion is found dead. The police suspect Quinquin, but he has got himself an alibi from a bar owner who says he was playing poker in his bar on the night of the murder. Joss shows he doesn’t care about following procedure as far as this case is concerned when he kicks all the clients out of the bar, interrogates the bar owner at gun point and smacks him in the face. In the meantime, Quinquin’s accomplices are being found dead left, right and centre.
When Joss discovers that Gouvion had a girlfriend called Nathalie (Dany Carrel) who works at a club called Les Hippies, he heads off there to find out if she has any information for him. Dany is a hostess at the bar, very attractive and far too young for Gouvion; Joss sees her across the room talking to Brunet. When Brunet leaves the club, Joss speaks with him and then he heads over to Nathalie to question her. As they leave the club together, Brunet watches from his car. It certainly appears that Nathalie may be involved with the criminals, but everything is not always as it seems. And this is what Joss finds as he is investigating the Gouvion case; did he really know his friend after all? He didn’t even know that Gouvion had a girlfriend until one of his colleagues mentioned it.
Nathalie says that she and Gouvion used to see each other, but he became jealous over time thinking that she was seeing other men; he demanded that they live together, although she wasn’t sure that they would have enough money to live on. From her clothes and her apartment you can tell she is used to luxury and a police inspector’s salary probably wouldn’t stretch to that. Nathalie says that Brunet is a regular visitor to the club and that’s all. She seems to have little else to tell Joss; it’s not a lot for him to go on.
Next stop for Joss is a recording studio where Emile Vergnes (André Weber), another suspected accomplice, is working with Serge Gainsbourg as guitarist on a track called Requiem pour un con.
Joss has received intelligence that suggests that Vergnes is going to be robbing a mail train but Vergnes says he’s just playing guitar these days. Vergnes does, however, have some information that is useful to Joss – it turns out that Nathalie is the sister of Léon de Lyon; funny she didn’t mention that before… so Joss goes to see her again.
Nathalie swears that Léon didn’t ask anything of Gouvion and she says she doesn’t even know where her brother is – Joss tells her, rather cold-heartedly, that he’s in the morgue. The police have been keeping it quiet about Léon’s death; they know Quinquin did it but they need their evidence. Joss asks Nathalie if she would set up Quinquin, meet with him and propose a multi-million foreign currency job; knowing that Quinquin is greedy, it’s an offer he probably wouldn’t refuse. Nathalie has to meet this man who killed her brother and act as if she knows nothing about it; she meets him in a groovy clothes store and discusses the job with him as the cops are watching on surveillance camera. At first Quinquin acts disinterested but the amount of money on offer soon changes his mind.
The job is set up for the 19th of the month and Joss gives the details to Nathalie who calls Quinquin with all the information he will need; he says he needs to see her and although this was not part of the plan and she should inform Joss about the meeting, Nathalie heads off on her own with just a handgun for protection. The meeting goes ahead but when Quinquin offers her a drink Nathalie reaches for her gun in her handbag; maybe she wants revenge for her brother’s death in the same way that Joss wants revenge for Gouvion’s death. Whatever her reason, she’s too late because Quinquin has already shot her. He does, however, have every intention of taking the job forward – just without Nathalie.
The job goes ahead as planned. Joss gets ten men to work with him on the case; they are disguised as postmen taking delivery of the foreign currency (millions of francs worth, just in bags in the back of a train, as you do). The gang of criminals including Vergnes, all dressed as postmen, get on the train and knock out the “postmen”, taking charge of the currency delivery. When the train arrives at Troyes, they get off and tell the staff there that they are leaving the train early because they suspect an attack; they will now transport the currency by road to avoid being hijacked. As they leave the station with the currency, they are suddenly chased by the station master – for a moment they think they have been rumbled but he has just realised that he will need to open the gates for them.
They look to have got away with it, but we know that Quinquin is sure to be lying in wait for them somewhere – he wouldn’t want to let such a large sum of money go to another gang. But what I don’t understand is how Quinquin managed to get a gang together to work with him after the rather suspicious deaths of his other accomplices who worked with him on his last job. That bit I’m just not sure about. Anyway, lo and behold, the gang are hijacked by Quinquin and his men as anticipated. Poor old Vergnes should have stuck to being a guitarist after all, because Quinquin wastes no time in wasting him.
But Quinquin may have been too hasty after all – as he waits in the disused factory where the meeting with Brunet and the handover is to take place, he finds Brunet is handcuffed. In his confusion or perhaps figuring he’s not shot enough people yet, he shoots Brunet. Inspector Joss, watching from the sidelines, hesitates and then shoots Quinquin, telling him to drop his gun or he’ll shoot again. In the meantime there is a massive gun fight outside between Quinquin’s men and the police; it’s an absolute bloodbath, bodies strewn everywhere.
As Joss approaches the trigger happy but injured Quinquin, he tells him “Bullets are easier to give than receive, I’m sure you hadn’t thought about that?” Quinquin wants to know why Joss shot him – it’s true that there was a hesitation before he shot and it was not exactly in self-defence. Quinquin tells him what we already know: “On behalf of Albert Gouvion, my friend, the Emperor of Idiots.”
What a great little crime film and a must for any fan of Gainsbourg.
Serge Gainsbourg recorded Requiem pour un con for the soundtrack for Le pacha on 8 September 1967. Around about 15 October 1967, Jean Gabin told Gainsbourg that he’d like him to make an appearance in the film. Le pacha was premiered in Paris on 14 March 1968.
Look out for Georges Lautner (bottom row left) and Michel Audiard (I think he’s top row right) in the photofits:
Sources of information: (i) Gainsbourg, Gilles Verlant, Éditions Albin Michel, 1992; (ii) Gainsbourg Et Caetera, Gilles Verlant / Isabelle Salmon, Éditions Vade Retro, Paris, 1994. The (bad) translations are, as ever, my own.